The Courier-Mail

Sad di­vi­sion over state of the union

- CHRIS­TINE FORSTER

AS A Lib­eral and an ad­vo­cate for equal­ity, I have been rocked by the de­ci­sion of the fed­eral Coali­tion party room to deny its mem­bers a con­science vote on the cross-party Bill on same­sex mar­riage.

Tues­day night’s de­ci­sion, by a ma­jor­ity of about two-thirds of party room mem­bers, was a bit­ter per­sonal dis­ap­point­ment.

I firmly be­lieve that this is­sue should have been de­cided by all of Par­lia­ment, just as Prime Min­is­ter Tony Ab­bott him­self called for when he ad­dressed MPs in May.

For that to hap­pen though, all MPs needed to be free to ex­er­cise their con­sciences when they voted on the Bill. Sadly for me and my part­ner Vir­ginia, and for mil­lions of other Aus­tralian fam­i­lies, that will now not hap­pen in the cur­rent term of Par­lia­ment.

This is not, how­ever, an is­sue that will go away. The Coali­tion party room’s de­ci­sion has clearly dif­fer­en­ti­ated the Lib­er­als and Na­tion­als from La­bor and, in­evitably, that dif­fer­ence will be one that peo­ple con­sider as they weigh up where they will di­rect their vote at the next fed­eral elec­tion.

Clearly too, La­bor re­gards it as a vote-win­ner and will seek to use that to their ad­van­tage, putting the de­bate around mar­riage equal­ity even more firmly on the agenda as an elec­tion is­sue.

That means the Coali­tion will have to have an un­am­bigu­ous pol­icy to take to vot­ers in 2016. It won’t be able to take the ap­proach adopted in the run-up to the last elec­tion, which was that the is­sue would be open for de­bate in the new party room.

Af­ter Tues­day’s meet­ing the Prime Min­is­ter said the Coali­tion had not yet fi­nalised what its po­si­tion would be for the next elec­tion, but he added that the “dis­po­si­tion” was that it should go to a vote of the peo­ple, in other words a plebiscite.

As a sup­porter of change, and with an eye on the polls, in­clud­ing one con­ducted yesterday by

The Daily Tele­graph which put back­ing for mar­riage equal­ity at close to 75 per cent, I have no doubt that the Aus­tralian peo­ple will vote strongly in favour of re­form.

But if the is­sue is now not to be de­cided by Par­lia­ment un­til af­ter the peo­ple have spo­ken, there is sim­ply no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for de­lay­ing the vote un­til the next term.

A plebiscite will be ex­pen­sive and is un­for­tu­nately very likely to be di­vi­sive for the Aus­tralian com­mu­nity, just as it has proven to be for our politi­cians.

If they ab­ro­gate re­spon­si­bil­ity for the de­ci­sion and put it di­rectly to the peo­ple, there will be strong cam­paign­ing from both sides.

That will po­larise Aus­tralians and has the po­ten­tial to pit us against each other on an is­sue that is ul­ti­mately all about mu­tual re­spect, in­clu­sion and end­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion.

If the Gov­ern­ment de­cides a plebiscite is the right path, the vote should be held con­cur­rently with the next fed­eral elec­tion, to en­sure max­i­mum par­tic­i­pa­tion and de­liver the most un­equiv­o­cal re­sult. Bring it on. Chris­tine Forster (be­low right) is a City of Syd­ney coun­cil­lor, the sis­ter of Prime Min­is­ter Tony Ab­bott and en­gaged to her part­ner Vir­ginia (be­low left).

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